California Authors


BAY AREA COFFEE-A Stimulating History

By Monika Trobits, History Press

Book Reviewed by Craig MacDonald

What is it about coffee that makes it so popular? The Aroma? The Taste? The Stimulation?

Californians love their morning "cuppa joe." Many can't get going without it. Some sip their "java" throughout the day and night.

No wonder more than 380 million cups are consumed every day in America's $40 billion+ industry. But prior to arriving in California, coffee beans hop-scotched across 4 continents and crossed 2 oceans before landing on the Pacific Coast, according to Monika Trobits, author of "Bay Area Coffee-A Stimulating History," one of the most comprehensive and fascinating books ever written on coffee.

The New Yorker-turned San Franciscan says there isn't another American region that loves its coffee more than San Francisco and the Bay Area, where coffee drinkers got their first major jolt during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Thousands of thirsty gold-seekers arrived in San Francisco on ships, which also carried large sacks of coffee beans.

In the early 1850s, San Francisco had 17 Coffee Saloons. In 1851, Jim Folger traveled through the Sierra mining camps with samples from his employer—San Francisco's "Pioneer Steam Coffee & Spice Mill," which he later purchased. Folgers Coffee flourished with its innovative marketing and vacuum-packed cans and is very popular to this day.

The author explains how Folgers, Hills Brothers and MJB grew into the profitable "Big 3" Coffee Roasters in the "City by the Bay" before expanding elsewhere.

She tells how North Beach developed as the birthplace of San Francisco's Coffee Culture and the "bean's" significant role in the Bay Area from the 19th through the 21st Century. Readers will find out about Tosca Café and its cappuccino; Caffe Trieste, the first espresso Coffee House on the West Coast, and Caffe "Med," where Caffe Latte was created. (Some customers asked that the espresso be less bitter. The owner obliged by adding frothy steamed milk.)

But the Coffee Business wasn't always smooth sailing. There were product & technology challenges, stiff competition (inside and outside the industry) and disasters (which had to be overcome).

By the mid-1960s, 60% of home-consumed coffee and 65% of instant coffee was owned by national food corporations. In 1985, MJB, the last large family-owned coffee company in the United States, was sold to an international company.

The author explains how in the 1960s, many Baby Boomers started preferring Soft Drinks because of the poor quality of some corporate-owned coffee and Coca-Cola's aggressive advertising.

However, coffee would rebound and regain its immense popularity because of special places like Peet's in North Berkeley, which influenced the founders of Starbucks, who opened their first business in Seattle in 1971. For the first 21 months, Starbucks sold Peet's beans. But after Starbucks opened their second store, Alfred Peet said they were getting too big and needed to invest in their own roaster.

Following Peet's and Starbucks, were a wave of roasters, who concentrated on the characteristics of the beans. "For them, coffee was an artisan food like craft beer & boutique wine," writes the author. "Their mission was to make coffee taste better by establishing a relationship with coffee farmers and improving the quality of their beans, resulting in a better taste." Some of these roasters include the Blue Bottle Coffee Company of Oakland and Chromatic Coffee of San Jose.

The informative book is chock-full of fascinating tidbits:

—The Coffee Bean is a seed that needs to be roasted before it can be ground and brewed.

—Nearly all coffee comes from a special "Bean Belt" north and south of the Equator. Hawaii, is the only state in the US where coffee is grown.

—Coffee was thought to have originated in, what is now, Ethiopia, where red berries containing beans grew wild on mountainsides. They were eaten as food, like an early day Energy Bar.

—In North America, Mexico is the leading producer of coffee beans. They have over 100,000 coffee farmers!

—Brazil, which produces more coffee than any other country, started producing coffee in 1727.

—The Buena Vista Saloon was the birthplace of America's Irish Coffee. In 1952, San Francisco Chronicle Travel Writer Stanton Delaplane told the establishment's owner, Jack Koeppler, about an incredibly delicious coffee drink he enjoyed at an airport in Ireland. The two pals teamed up to reproduce the rich, velvety Irish Coffee (which includes whiskey and cream). Marilyn Monroe loved it and Buena Vista's Irish Coffee still thrills people to this day at the café located by the legendary Powell-Hyde Cable Car route.

(The reviewer worked in downtown San Francisco and enjoyed many of the cafes mentioned in this book. His wife loves coffee and during World War II, his father loved coffee and was stationed at an airbase in Brazil, the most productive coffee bean country in the world.)

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